Mobile roadblock

Fring vs Skype spat highlights consumer-irritating practices in the sector
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When Apple unveiled the iPhone 4, many were surprised at the resurrection of a feature which had been tried and died years before. Video calls had been seen as the killer application for the first generation of 3G mobile handsets but now they’re set for a comeback. However there are barriers to the video calling resurrection such as the threat of exclusive licensing which often seems to be acting against the best interests of the consumer. 

Video calls need forward facing cameras and millions upon millions of handsets shipped with them but this is no longer the case. Beyond straight video calling the ability to send a video MMS message was another use for the forward camera and for that reason virtually every mainstream handset had one. 

Traditionally it’s network operators that specify the features of mobile phones since they bundle the handset and the service to customers as a value proposition. Anyone who remembers the first efforts at video calling will likely recall that it was tricky to get working, due to patchy 3G coverage but they’ll also likely to remember that it cost a fortune. 

The prospect of nations of video calling individuals paying serious money for this new communication system was seen as a key component in generating the revenue to pay back the astounding sums the operators had paid at government 3G bandwidth auctions.

Clearly it didn’t work and as smartphones became more capable, 3G instead became something you would use while browsing the web on the device or tethering it to a laptop. The operators had stopped asking for forward facing cameras to the point that most of today's expensive high-tech smart phones don’t actually have forward facing cameras at all.

Then just weeks ago Steve Jobs triumphantly held up the iPhone 4 and showed off FaceTime to eager Apple fans. FaceTime is a good demonstration of just how impressive video calling can now be with a decent quality camera matched with a highly capable modern smart phone. There have even been a number of innovative applications which use the rear-facing camera to stream video on Android handsets which goes to show that the capability was there all along.

FaceTime, however, remains locked as a Wi-Fi only feature apparently due to ongoing negotiations with iPhone 4 exclusive operator AT&T. Of course that also means that it’s locked to Wi-Fi only operation even for unlocked handsets available in the US and internationally. To do otherwise would highlight how this is an artefact of what the network operators want and not what is good for the consumer. Dangerous ground.

No problem, surely someone else can simply bring their popular VOIP/video calling service to mobile handsets? Then forward facing cameras will make a comeback and what’s more, we’ll all be able to chat between platforms such as Android, Blackberry, Apple, Symbian and even the desktop PC all over 3G or Wi-Fi as we please. One company has exactly the service and the software to do exactly this today, Skype. So why don’t they?

In another curious artefact of the power of the mobile network operators, Skype isn’t actually available to most people who own smartphones perfectly capable of running the Skype software. That’s because Skype is exclusively available to customers of Verizon. If you have an Android handset on Verizon in the US, you’re in luck. Otherwise, and that’s most of us again, you’re stuffed. Unless, curiously, you have an iPhone.

There must, surely, be some reason Skype chooses to restrict their Android market? We’ll come back to that.

It’s on this backdrop that Fring made much hay by telling the world that it had implemented Skype video calling functionality into the Fring applications on iPhone 4 and Android. Naturally a decent number of people who have brand spanking new iPhone 4s rushed to give it a go and under the weight of network traffic, Fring virtually collapsed. 

At that point Fring decided to temporarily suspend the Skype video feature and bring it back when they had upgraded network capability. Only when they did they found Skype had blocked them. Oh dear. Fring let loose a barrage of abuse at “cowardly” Skype. Skype replied stating a breach of T&Cs and harm to their brand due to a poor quality of service. There’s nothing in the exchange that indicates that Skype acted improperly. 

For a service which ultimately depends upon the infrastructure provided by another company, you would have to question the wisdom of the gung-ho blogs from Fring. It would seem like the upstair Israeli company has dramatically miscalculated if it thinks that such statements are likely to bring the VOIP empire of Skype to the negotiating table.

Beyond this eyebrow-raising spat, if consumers feel any sympathy for Fring it’s because they’re denied the use of Skype on their network and their handset just because of some licensing deal Skype made and not for anything that seems like a real reason. In this they may well have a point but Skype is, of course, not obligated to provide software and service anywhere it doesn’t wish to.

There’s also the point of brand and expectation which Skype highlighted in the press release response. Reports of experience regarding Fring and Skype video were not exactly positive. There are technical factors at play here but ultimately Skype has a motivation to ensure that it is in control of as much of the service considered as Skype if ultimately the quality of experience is associated with their brand.

Related to this experience is a technical measure implemented by network operators and that’s something called quality of service or QoS. Essentially calls of any description ought to be assigned the highest possible priority on the mobile network. It’s vastly more important that someone gets a crackle-free voice call that exactly how fast a web page loads, for example. The original video calling standards did exactly this too and with age past that consumers appeared willing to foot the bill for that sort of bandwidth guarantee, so evaporated the network operator’s interest in video calling.

These days we have an expectation of 3G network performance that video calling should work without such strict network operator QoS. It probably will too but it definitely won’t work all the time and that gives rise to some thorny issues. Who is responsible for the service, is it being paid for and if it is then to whom does the user complain when their video call is a messed up jumble of blocks and clicks?

Skype’s strategy appears to elevate the user experience to a level that requires network operator QoS measures. Skype traffic on Verizon will be subject to QoS as part of the deal. Someone re-selling, effectively, Skype’s video calling functionality and then turning it off and on again at will (as Fring did) and delivering a hugely variable experience is completely at odds with what Skype is trying to do. In some respects the surprise is that they allowed it in the first place.

There is also, sad to say, a lot more money in conducting a deal with either a network operator or even an individual brand of handset manufacturer than there is slapping your wares up on the App store or the Marketplace and hoping people will buy your software. One striking example is the Swype software keyboard for Android which still isn’t available on the Marketplace for anyone to buy despite thousands of customers wishing they could.

Swype is, however, bundled on modern Samsung handsets and other phones. Whatever the fee charged for each of those phones, it’s multiplied by hundreds of thousands of phones. That’s serious money and the fact is that in the competitive open market of Android handsets, offering exclusive software features is a highly attractive proposition that’s worth just as much as putting in some fancy hardware feature. 

That means we’re likely to see innovative software continue to appear on different models of handsets which otherwise could be sold to anyone via the Marketplace. There’s more money to be made for developers this way, at least until the revenue streams from the Marketplace improve. They will have to improve a lot and while that’s likely to the point you’d hope something like Swype stands to lose the annoying availability issue, custom exclusive software will be here to stay in some form or another.

However what we can say with some confidence is that there is now a market for a true multi-platform voice and video calling application with clients that run on all handsets. If Skype isn’t able to fill that gap then someone else will. The most obvious candidate would be Google. They already have an extensive VOIP service launched in the US called Google Voice, and an IM client with video capability on the desktop via a browser plug-in and they have acquired the technology company responsible for the VP8 video codec.

Google is also well positioned to integrate functionality directly into the Android OS in a seamless way to tie into the Google cloud of contacts and so on. With smartphone manufacturers now being at least as interested in what consumers want as well as what network operators want, forward facing cameras are likely to make a big come back and it seems unlikely in the extreme that some sort of open video calling standard will not arrive in Android and hopefully via client-software on the iPhone as well. 

We say hopefully, because Jobs could always simply decide to ban it in the hope that the world buys an Apple device to run FaceTime. Let’s face it, Apple has done stranger things than that.

So while presently consumers are scratching their heads at seemingly illogical restrictions on the sorts of things they want to do on their mobile devices, these are ultimately just symptoms of a fast moving industry struggling with unlikely technological comebacks. We can thank Apple for reminding us of technology lost and just how useful it can be once again.

In the mean time the major stakeholders would do well to pay attention to such artificial restriction and how poorly they are considered by their customers. 

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